That's the dream for some reformsters-- a school system that is driven not by regulation or government edict and certainly not by the professional educators who work there, but a system that is driven by parent choice.
I believe there are probably idealistic purists among the visionaries who really do believe that we'd have a system where parents peruse sets of pure and transparent data and then make informed choices based on that data, allowing schools to compete and improve by responding to how their data plays out in the marketplace. These purists are sweet, like delightful five year olds who still wait breathlessly for Christmas morning and the proof of Santa's arrival.
But there are also advocates of choice who are less idealistic and less pure. They understand what having a system "driven by parent choice" really means. I'll give you a hint-- it doesn't mean a system driven by parent choice.
Idealists talk about parent choice as if it occurs in some sort of iron-clad vacuum, influenced by nothing by clean data and clear thinking.
That's silly. Parent choice is malleable, shapeable, bendable, and open to influence. Yes, technically, in a choice system, the ultimate decision is theoretically made by parent choice. But that parent choice does not begin and end with parents-- it is molded and directed by a hundred other forces.
Purists imagine parents poring over spreadsheets, consuming mounds of impartial school information with a tasty topping of crunched data. But as we have already seen, charters take a strong hand in what data gets to the public, spinning and angling for a good marketing picture. They direct marketing toward particular parents, and they offer benefits that go far beyond any data that can be crunched (I'm remembering Pennsylvania cyber-school ads that suggested cyber-school would make your child happier than public school).
To get money out of the tightish fist of a government agency can be tricky, what with all those rules and regulations. But to get money out of a parent (especially if it isn't actually the parent's personal money), you can appeal to emotions and prejudices with slanted, incomplete and just-plain-false pitches.
Saying that such a system would be driven by parent choice is like saying the fast food, soft drink and automotive industries are driven by consumer choice. They are-- but that consumer choice is driven by marketing that involves everything from emotional appeals that have nothing to do with product quality, to manipulating the market to do things like buy up all the shelf space in the store, to simply carpet-bombing the airways so that your product is best-known. And that at least is a market in which you aren't allowed to offer battery-acid cola or brakeless automobiles; some states (looking at you, Ohio) have not yet figured out how to keep flat-out charlatans from bilking parents with built-to-fail charter flim flams.
"Driven by parent choice" just means "run on the free market," and the free market runs on marketing. "Driven by parent choice" just means opening parents up to every marketing maneuver and sales shenanigans in the book.
Greene's Law of the Free Market: The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.
Am I saying that parents are just too dumb to navigate a free marketty education system? Not at all. But I am saying that parents, like most US consumers in today's marketplace, are people who are bringing a butter knife to a gun fight. I am saying that parents who have their hands full with the daily business of holding a home and family together may have trouble doing the full-time research work necessary to cut through the fog and smoke and the lies and half-truths and spun baloney of charter marketing. I am saying that schools should not have "caveat emptor" stamped on their front doors.
And I'm saying that folks who say "driven by parent choice" as if that is a pure, clear, clean solution are either fooling themselves or trying to fool everyone else.